That changed–in a big way–this week, after Apple filed suit against Qualcomm in the United States and China and aided regulators at the Federal Trade Commission and the Korea Fair Trade Commission in moving against the chipmaker with their own legal actions.
All four cases go to the very heart of Qualcomm’s lucrative business model of charging patent licensing royalties based on the value of the 1.5 billion smartphones sold a year. Analysts say the company is able to charge five to 10 times what other mobile patent holders like Nokia (NOK) and Ericsson (ERIC) collect, generating immense profits. As a result, the royalty unit reported pretax income of $6.5 billion in Qualcomm’s last fiscal year, 75% of the total at the company on just 33% of total revenue.
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Defending that business model and giving no ground, Mollenkopf mentioned Apple (AAPL) by name not 30 seconds into his quarterly earnings conference call with analysts on Wednesday night and then proceeded to spend almost the entire hour-long conversation discussing the iPhone maker’s allegations. In a rare show of openness in addressing an ongoing legal matter, the CEO and other top executives answered every analyst question about the cases. And there were plenty–16 of the 20 questions asked by the eight analysts on the call were about the disputes.
Qualcomm took no prisoners as it outlined a scorched-earth legal strategy that could end up counter-suing Apple for patent infringement as well. Fundamentally, executives argued, Qualcomm can charge so much because its patents are worth so much.
“Our technology has enabled the mobile economy and the foundation for business models and applications of companies like Uber, Snapchat, Instagram, messaging apps like WhatsApp and iMessage, streaming services like Spotify, smart assistants like Siri and Google Assistant, and many others across the globe,” Qualcomm president Derek Aberle told the analysts. He and other executives also denied key charges at the heart of Apple’s case, including that Qualcomm had prohibited Apple from using competitors’ chips in the iPhone.
Investors still seem to have some doubts–Qualcomm’s stock has lost 16% since Apple filed its case last Friday. Fortune reached out to Apple for comment and will update this story if a response is received.
Apple and the regulators say Qualcomm (QCOM) shouldn’t be allowed to charge nearly as much because it agreed to allow industry standards-setting bodies to include the patented technologies in numerous standards underlying the entire mobile wireless ecosystem. Companies that contribute to industry standards are supposed to then license rights to the patents on “fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory” terms.
Qualcomm charges royalties based on the value of an entire smartphone, not just the price of the mobile communications-related chip sets inside. Apple and the regulators claim Qualcomm thus gets higher royalties on higher-priced phones even though they include the identical wireless features as lower-priced devices. The FTC dubbed the model a discriminatory “tax” on all phones. Apple argued it should only pay royalties calculated on the much lower value of the mobile chipsets it puts in the phone.
Qualcomm said it has been calculating royalties based on the full price of phones because its patents covered far more mobile features than just those encompassed by the mobile communications chips. And it noted that many other patent holders in various industries calculate royalties in the same manner.
“There are numerous examples, reasonable royalties being set in court cases as a percentage of the end product,” CEO Mollenkopf said.
And Qualcomm also offered a further clever rebuttal to Apple’s rationale. In its own lawsuits against Samsung and other Android phone makers, Apple asserted that by violating a few of its patents around the design of a device and some touchscreen gestures the company should be entitled to all of the profits those competitors reaped selling phones–100%.
“Of all the lawsuits that Apple has brought against its competitors, look at what they’ve sought in damages for just a couple of patents, or less than a handful of patents,” Qualcomm general counsel Don Rosenberg noted. “So that’s an interesting comparison to their claiming in terms of the portfolio that we have.”
The chip maker’s executives also issued a less-than-subtle threat that they might counter-sue Apple for patent infringement. For the history of the iPhone, Apple’s third-party manufacturers like Foxconn, not Apple itself, have signed licensing deals with Qualcomm. But on Wednesday, Qualcomm revealed that those deals don’t cover all of the patented technologies that the company thinks the iPhone may use.
To learn about Qualcomm’s strategy for 5G, watch:
“So (we’re) probably not going to comment today on our legal strategy as to what we may or may not do with the patents that are unlicensed to Apple or contract manufacturers,” Aberle said, making a thinly veiled threat. “But there are some patents in our portfolio that are outside those agreements.”
Qualcomm more directly outlined its legal strategy for the two regulatory cases. In Korea, the company will appeal to the country’s High Court and seek a stay of the order from the KFTC. The appeal process will take “quite some time,” Rosenberg said.
Back in the United States at the FTC, Qualcomm will wait for Republicans to take control of the agency and seek a “re-evaluation” of that case. The agency had moved forward against Qualcomm on a party-line vote, with the single Republican commissioner dissenting. But with Trump becoming president Republicans gain control of the agency.
By the end of the call, Mollenkopf was ready to remind the analysts that Qualcomm has weathered many legal challenges in the past, including China’s almost $1 billion fine in 2015. “I appreciate everybody’s patience here, but we’re going to do the right thing for shareholders,” he concluded.